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Burning Piranesi (reformatted)

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Out on the dilapidated front porch of his apartment Peter’s party has run out of gas. Only a few of his friends from school managed to stop by. Some have already left town for Christmas break. Some didn’t bother to show up at all. The rest are attending another more lavish party up on Compton Point. 

Peter doesn’t really notice, doesn’t really mind. He’s too glum for any of that. He and his three remaining guests have pulled folding chairs out onto the porch and are huddled around the fading embers of a charcoal grill. It’s warmer here than inside the unheated apartment. Nobody has much to say. They nurse tepid glasses of sangria, sniffle at the cold and occasionally crack off-color jokes. 

A screen door opens behind Peter. It’s Gil and Talley, Peter’s jerkoff roommates, emerging from the apartment. They had shown up late for the party and when everybody else moved outside, they slipped up to the loft and made love. They are now headed out, off to what they expect will be a much livelier party up on Compton Point. Both linger for a moment with the other guests. Gil and Talley pretty much go their own way most the time with little regard to anyone else on earth. It’s their habit. This is true of their relationship with Peter, as it is for their graduate studies at the Department of Architecture and Technology. Unlike most students at DAT, they can easily afford the luxury of ambivalence. This is because Talley’s uncle happens to be one of the school’s most generous benefactors. 

Peter sucks another long gulp of sangria and looks across the porch steps to the street curb and his lovely MG. His look is a possessive one. After all, he believes he hasn’t much else left in this life. His soon-to-be ex-wife is off somewhere in Manhatten, probably fucking his old high school buddy, Robbie. His dog ran off last week. His roommates are buttholes. And, he's beginning to think graduate school is not at all what he hoped it would be. The MG is his last remaining bond to the optimistic young man who entered Alabaster University three and a half months before. 

Ordinarily, Peter would keep the car out back under the protective drape of a vinyl cover. Tonight however, he’d incautiously parked it in front, thinking it might impress his friends and give him something to talk about besides school or work or, however unlikely, his doleful heart. 

Across the street from Peter’s place, there's another party underway. Over the course of the evening, it has steadily grown more raucous. Distorted music blares from within. Shifting silhouettes of throbbing bodies slither across the tattered drapes of the ground floor apartment. The sweet, putrid odor of smoldering marijuana wafts through the open front door and drifts over the street. Watching the coming and goings of the skanky figures attending this party becomes the principal entertainment of Peter’s gathering. 

A couple of stoned teenagers have passed out on the front lawn. Some older dude picks a fight with a younger dude. Drunk, neither manages to land a clean punch. Both stagger off after ten minutes of pointless flailing. A young woman in a loosely cinched halter-top sits out on the second floor landing of a fire escape, shivers in the cold and cries. She too is very drunk. Peter and his friends take all of this in with only passing interest. 

Peter is working on a pretty good drunk himself. It began earlier in the afternoon with a six-pack of Budweiser. After the party started, he switched to sangria. Later, he’ll throw back more than a few shots of tequila and before the night ends, he’ll be slugging the stuff straight from the bottle, heedless of the consequences to his head in the morning. 

Building a good drunk is no easy matter. It requires patience and thoughtful planning. It is similar to the regimen of personal skin care recommended by the makers of fine cologne. Such a process begins with a soaking bath, employing the fragrance’s coordinating body wash. After toweling off, a complementary talcum powder is massaged into the skin. Hand and body lotion of the same scent are slathered on and once this fragrant brew of volatile agents has sufficiently cured, only then is the cologne itself applied, dabbed on the wrist, at the nape of the neck, and, if so inclined, along the inside of the thigh. The resulting body of fragrance assumes a richness and aromatic depth no perfume alone could hope to realize. 

The assembly of a good drunk is precisely the same. At its foundation is a layer of cheap domestic beer, overlaid with steady doses of wine or brandy or, in Peter’s case, sangria. A peppermint schnapps may be folded in for a sense of lightness and color, followed by generous application of the hard stuff: whiskey, gin, vodka, tequila or any other distilled beverage of preference, imbibed to excess. The resulting drunk and its subsequent hangover are naturally rich, full-bodied and thoroughly immobilizing. It's just the kind of drunk Peter is after tonight. 

Across the street, the neighbors’ party continues unabated. The halter-topped woman from the fire escape now emerges out the apartment’s front door. She’s still crying. She’s still very drunk. A man on the porch, also drunk, follows her down the front steps. He grabs her elbow roughly and spins her around. One small, pink breast slips out from her halter-top. She doesn’t notice. Peter and his friends all lean forward with renewed interest. She screams incoherently at the man. He slaps her. She pushes him away and staggers out to the street, getting into a car across from Peter’s. The man flips her off and stumbles back into the house. 

The woman sits in the car for a time, continuing to cry, head in hands, her chin resting painfully on the steering wheel. She slowly gathers herself, fumbles for the car keys under the seat and starts up the car’s clattering engine with far too much pressure on the gas pedal. Before the engine can return to its normal range of idle, she slams it into reverse and squeals the tires, punching her rear bumper into the hood of the car parked immediately behind. She shifts to first gear, engine still racing, and slams into the trunk of the vehicle ahead of her. A plume of steam immediately geysers up from the engine compartment. She turns the wheel erratically, shifts into reverse and again plunges her rear bumper into the car behind. A crowd of dumbfounded onlookers begins to gather. Peter and his friends perk up. She throttles the car back and forth three more times, moving each of the cars wedging her in several feet in both directions. On the fourth attempt, she scrapes off the left rear bumper of the car ahead and wallows her vehicle into the street. 

Peter suddenly recognizes the terrible threat to his beloved MG. The woman again accelerates. The car lurches over the road’s centerline, t-boning the passenger door panel of a car parked in front of Peter’s. He gasps and attempts to rise out of his chair. She crams the gearshift into reverse and smokes the tires again, careening in a broad half circle directly into the front fender of a car parked across from the MG. She sits for a moment, befuddled. Steam continues to spew from the engine compartment. The front and rear of her car are crumpled beyond recognition. A few people from the house approach the wreckage. She looks to be finished. Peter sighs in relief. Somebody opens her passenger door. It’s the boyfriend. He screams in her face, recapping his side of their recent argument. She screams back, this time with a clarity of speech that completely belies her profound intoxication: “Git out of my way, you Gawd-damned, cocksucking asswipe. I’m not fuckin' done with your fuckin' car yet!” She again revs the motor and crunches its transmission into gear. Peter has turned away for only a moment, confident that all is again well in his world. He does not see her car pounce forward. He does not see it hurtling in the direction of the MG. He hears only the squealing of tires followed by the sickening crinkle of fine, English sheet metal reduced to scrap. His lovely MG, wrapped tightly about the front bumper of the woman’s car, skips over the granite curb and comes to rest, jammed hard against the stoop of Peter’s apartment. He looks down at what remains of his baby. He slumps to porch floor and falls over onto his side. Gil moves forward and stands directly over him sympathetically. “Jesus, Peter. That sucks, man. That really sucks.” 

At just this moment, the party up on Compton Point really starts to take off. The event is being held at the Bristol, a ritzy, four-story condo, three blocks off Kinston Avenue. A second floor suite in the building belongs to the parents of Kyle Goddard, a third-year graduate student at DAT. Kyle and his girlfriend Suzie are celebrating any number of good things: the end of the semester, their great fortune at having both been born stinking rich and more specifically, the Christmas present Kyle’s father had just sent back from Italy. It is an original etching by the Renaissance artist Piranesi. About seventy-five people are pressed into Kyle’s condo. Another hundred or so mill around in the hallway outside or down by the heated swimming pool or out on the balcony. Many of the guests are students from DAT. Others are friends from Kyle’s hometown of Newark. The remainder are hangers-on of varying ilk. The building’s elevator has been appropriated for a poker game. Six, cigar puffing graduate students have set up a folding table inside and ascend from floor to floor, dealing five-card stud. Back in the condo, another gaggle of students pass around a fat joint crimped in a pearl handled roach clip. Meanwhile, some skank from east Connecticut lays down several thin lines of coke on the coffee table. Although the party is not yet fully out of control, several guests have stripped down to their underwear and are leaping off the balcony into the pool below. 

Kyle grins at the tumult. This is his kind of party. Behind him, perched on an exquisite eighteenth century, French Empire sideboard, is the object of this evening’s celebration, an 18” x 23” parchment etching of a fantastically voluminous catacomb, bearing the scrawled signature of Giovanni Basttista Piranesi. 

Gil and Talley arrive. They brought Peter with them, thinking it unwise to let him sit alone at the apartment to sob over his shattered car. By now, he's catatonic with drink. And sorrow. They push him onto the open seat of a sofa and head off to find their own drinks. Peter craters into its plush cushions. 

There is an attractive woman seated beside him, a woman he would ordinarily recognize if he weren’t completely out of his mind. She is the graduate secretary at DAT. Her name is Sally. She’s been here all evening. She’s pretty high and in only fleeting command of her normally sheltering inhibitions. There is a thin powdering of cocaine clinging to the pale follicles just inside each of her nostrils. She nuzzles up next to Peter, thinking to make a little friendly conversation, thinking maybe he wouldn’t be such a bad guy to wind up with at the end of the night. 

“Hey,” she drools with the dopey slur of a stoner. “I know you. You’re Peter. Peter Wal...Walla. Yeah, Peter Waller, right? From school, right?” In her drugged stupor, Sally badly mangles Peter’s last name. He doesn’t notice. “You know me don’t cha. I’m Sally, from DAT. You know me don cha? I type all that shit for them butthole professors at DAT. Like I just typed a letter to you last week. Or maybe it was the week before. She-et. How’m I supposed to remember this crap, but yeah, I know you. So how the Hell are ya’?” Peter, unable to form words, only nods. Sally blathers on. 

“So Petey, what do you know about this Pironassi dude? I mean what’s all the hu-dee-due about anyways? It just looks like a beat up, 'ole drawing to me. What’s all the stinking fuss about anyways? Ya’ know, why’s this such a fuckin’ big deal?” 

Were Peter even slightly less drunk, he would explain that Piranesi was an extraordinary, fifteenth century Italian artist. His etchings, particularly those evoking a grandiose reconstruction of Imperial Rome, had been of enormous influence to generations of architects. Peter might have also added that this “beat-up, ole drawing” was probably worth more than twenty thousand dollars, a sum of money neither of them would likely ever possess at one time for all the rest of their lives. But Peter is very drunk and so instead of explaining all of this, he simply grunts back at Sally and begins to doze off. Sally, determining she might have better luck with a less unconscious prospect, drifts off to another corner of the party. Peter passes out. 

Behind him at the French Empire sideboard, the skank from Connecticut is working a crack pipe with a pocket lighter. He stokes the flame too generously and the whole mess explodes with a pop, igniting the crack, the lacquered veneer of the sideboard and, not surprisingly, the Piranesi. The ancient parchment of the etching crinkles in the withering flames, blackens and crumbles to ash in seconds. Kyle sees it all happen. He looks down at the scorched sideboard and the smoldering fragments of a five hundred year-old masterpiece. He turns, stoned out of his mind, raises his glass of brandy before his startled guests and laughs out loud. He just laughs his frigging butt off. 

Hours later, Peter wakens to the sound of an anvil being beaten by a sledgehammer. It bludgeons his poor brain, stroke after stroke until he wants to scream for deliverance. He looks up from the sofa through swollen eyes. The sound riveting his skull comes from a small clock, perched on a coffee table several feet beyond his head. He reaches out, pushes the timepiece onto the floor and falls back asleep. In the next room, Kyle lies in Suzie’s arms. Both are naked. Kyle dreams that he and Suzie have spent the night making incredible love. Suzie is having the same dream, but of course, she knows better. The skank from Connecticut had slipped out shortly before the fire department arrived. By now, he's halfway to Bridgeport. Sally is passed out in the kitchen. Gil and Talley are back at Peter’s apartment making love. What’s left of Peter’s MG has been deposited in the auto graveyard behind Mel’s Automatic Brushless Carwash. The woman in the halter-top is drying out in the drunk tank. She doesn’t regret a thing.

Comments (2)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Excellent read, the dialogue is crisp and believable and the characterizations are realistic. Very good work.

Joshua Hennen
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Thanks. It's an old submission. Just wanted to get the paragraph returns right this time.

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